Look at a silent movie staring Greta Garbo: You will quickly realize just why she was the biggest star in the world during the silent era. She did something on screen that no other actor of her time could pull off–she was natural, expressive, and understated in a medium that relied on motion and facial expression in lieu of sound. Her contribution was a stark contrast to that of any other film actor of the era; she can only be called a genius of film.
I’ve been thinking about similar geniuses of another medium, of American popular music, especially after the radio stories of the rescue of important American musical figures from New Orleans, people like Fats Domino and Irma Thomas. These stories made me think of the enormous contribution of New Orleans to American (and world) music, of the music we would never have heard, had that city never been built. Also, as today is the fourth anniversary of 9/11, I am inclined to celebrate America as well as to mourn our loss. What better for celebration than one of America’s greatest contributions to the world, its popular music?
In addition to a desire to celebrate America on this day of all days, I have limited my pursuit to Americans because the world is huge and I don’t know the popular-music traditions of many cultures. Unfortunately, that keeps Bob Marley and John Lennon off my list–though both are personal favorites and, I believe, among the greatest artistic geniuses of the last century.
I have also left off people like Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra–for all of their tremendous popularity and distinctive sounds, I see little of actual genius in what they did. There has to be something in each choice as startling in their music as Garbo is on screen.
This is just a start, so I am open for suggestions (but, please, keep your justifications to a sentence):
Louis Armstrong. What more is there to say?
Chuck Berry. He created rock-and-roll guitar.
Henry Byrd. Professor Longhair went his own way always. Blues, rock, and rhythm-and-blues piano have had to trail along after him.
Clifton Chenier. He is the object of one of those basic questions: Could modern zydeco exist if he had not?
Charlie Christian. All electric guitar playing flows from his fingers.
Ornette Coleman. He swung that sax through every barrier he could find, opening jazz to an avant garde that hasn’t since been equaled.
John Coltrane. He made jazz resonate with spirituality and completely remade our expectations from the saxaphone.
Gary Davis. He had his way with the blues.
Miles Davis. As both composer and trumpeter, he both smoothed jazz and startled it.
Bob Dylan. Sparked by his pen, the “song” rose to heights never before imagined.
Ella Fitzgerald. With a voice and enunciation of deadly accuracy and beauty, her interpretations are responsible for what we now call, simply, the “songbook.”
George Gershwin. I heard a radio announcer say there are two pieces that never need introduction anywhere: Beethoven’s Fifth and Rhapsody in Blue.
Woody Guthrie. He took the song where it had never been, directly into politics and open social commentary.
Jimi Hendrix. Under his fingers, the guitar became much more than simply an instrument. It became a voice, a lover.
Billie Holliday. She was the first singer to take full advantage of the microphone, using it not so much to augment her voice but to bring her audience closer to her songs.
John Hurt. Unknown until the end of his life, he had taken the blues and the popular song, melding them into his unique storytelling almost forty years earlier.
Janis Joplin. Dissatisfied by the vocal possibilities she saw around her, she reinvented her voice and its sound, creating her own inimitable blues idiom.
Scott Joplin. He showed that a rag is much, much more than a piece of tattered cloth.
Jerome Kern. If any show “made” the Broadway musical, it was his Show Boat.
B.B. King. He integrated voice and guitar into a blues that galvanized generations of musicians.
Hudie Ledbetter. With a powerful 12-string base line behind them, Leadbelly took blues lyrics places no one had imagined they could ever go.
Thelonoius Monk. He took bebop and threw it into a future that, maybe, we have not even reached, yet.
Jelly Roll Morton. Maybe he didn’t invent jazz. Maybe.
Charlie Parker. He “unpacked” jazz.
Jimmy Rodgers. The Singing Brakeman is called “the father of country music” with reason.
Earl Scruggs. Maybe he didn’t invent bluegrass… but the child would have died without Scruggs-style banjo picking.
Bessie Smith. Often imitated, never equaled, she remains the greatest blues singer of all time.
Sarah Vaughan. She could make a lyric resonate with meaning far beyond what its composer could have imagined.
Hank Williams. By keeping things simple, he crafted heartfelt ballads of an elegance no one has ever equaled.