Jazz breaking news: Julian Joseph’s knockout night at Sadler’s Wells
Tuesday, 19 June 2012 10:04
Joe Louis (pictured), the boxing champion widely regarded as one of the America’s first black celebrities, is now the subject of pianist Julian Joseph’s Cultural Olympiad commission – a dance suite, choreographed by Sheron Wray, which premieres at Sadler’s Wells tomorrow, 20 June. Taking its title from the pundits’ nickname for Louis, The Brown Bomber explores the connections between jazz, dance, sport and politics, recreating Louis’ 1938 encounter with the German fighter Max Schmeling in New York.
Schmeling had subjected Louis to his first professional defeat at the 1936 Olympics, and been duly paraded as a paragon of Aryan superiority in Hitler’s Germany. Two years later, as tensions burgeoned in Europe, he travelled to America for a rematch, taking with him a Nazi publicist who, expecting a win for Schmeling, boasted that the prize money would go towards building German tanks. The match – and Louis’ astounding victory just two minutes in – took on a deeper significance in American minds, symbolising the international struggle between the values of freedom and tyranny, democracy and dictatorship.
Just as importantly, though, the event prompted Americans to question the values of their own country, where racial prejudice remained widespread and institutionalised. Louis’ faultless work ethic and unwavering professionalism played an important role in altering the public image of his game, previously associated with gambling and racketeering. It’s apposite that he shared his nickname with Oscar Peterson – known as ‘the Brown Bomber of boogie-woogie’ – for there were strong ties between boxing and jazz in the mid-twentieth century. Both had become occupations in which black people, still deprived of many educational and professional opportunities, had a chance to win national recognition and respect. Offstage, many musicians favoured the frenzy of the boxing arena; and, by the same token, combatants would cool down at jazz clubs after their matches. So great was the overlap between these two worlds that, the story goes, Louis spent the morning before his big fight in Duke Ellington’s flat.
In recent years Joseph has devoted much of his time to exploring such connections in a series of challenging, genre-crossing works, which have all taken stories from black history as their starting point (his last offering, Shadowball, was a jazz opera about America’s Negro baseball leagues in the 1930s, and will feature in tomorrow’s programme as a newly-configured dance suite). The Brown Bomber is also Joseph’s latest collaboration with Hackney Music Development Trust, which has been using his music as a foundation for wide-ranging educational work. As with their previous projects, the performance itself forms only part of the picture: since the beginning of the year, secondary school pupils have been learning about the story behind The Brown Bomber through classes in dance, composition and even boxing.
The Brown Bomber runs at Sadler’s Wells from 20-21 June (7.30pm), and at the Southbank Centre on 15 July (1.00pm). For more information, visit www.sadlerswells.com
– Orlando Bird
See Julian Joseph talking about The Brown Bomber here: