Black Music Sunday: Much ado about Lizzo and James Madison’s flute

Black Music Sunday: Much ado about Lizzo and James Madison’s flute

The flute is an instrument that dates back to ancient times. The United States Library of Congress has quite a collection of almost 1,700 of them, western and non-western, and until last week, I doubt very much that it was of interest to the general public. That changed when singer, rapper, and classically trained flutist Melissa Viviane Jefferson, who goes by Lizzo and happens to be a Black woman, was invited by our current Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, to visit the collection and play some of them. One of instruments was a crystal flute that was owned by former U.S. President James Madison.  

So for today’s #BlackMusicSunday, let’s take a look at what happened, explore the furor, and in the process listen to some fantastic Black female flutists.

It all started when Hayden tweeted at Lizzo:

IM COMING CARLA! AND IM PLAYIN THAT CRYSTAL FLUTE!!!!! https://t.co/aPcIthlqeo

— FOLLOW @YITTY (@lizzo) September 24, 2022

Hayden was appointed as Librarian of Congress by former President Obama, and is the first woman and first Black woman to ever hold that position.

Lizzo then visited and tried out a number of flutes, including Madison’s. But just who is Lizzo

Lizzo was born as Melissa Viviane Jefferson in Detroit, Michigan, on April 27, 1988. Lizzo’s family was part of a Pentecostal church in Detroit. Due to their faith, gospel music held sway in their household. Lizzo’s parents also listened to Elton John, Queen and Stevie Wonder. When Lizzo was 9, her family moved to Houston, Texas. There, she has said, her horizons expanded to include Destiny’s Child, Missy Elliott and twerking.

In fifth grade, Lizzo started playing the flute, an instrument she became devoted to and eventually played in her high school marching band. Though the flute was her focus, Lizzo also rapped. She was writing rhymes as a teenager and formed groups with her friends. Lizzo’s flute skills resulted in a scholarship to the University of Houston, where she studied music performance. She initially planned to continue her studies at the Paris Conservatory and eventually play in concert halls.

In addition to hours of flute practice, Lizzo continued to rap and perform in shows while in college. By her junior year, she decided to leave school to focus on making her name in the music industry. She explained on the radio program Fresh Air, “I was like, I’m already performing. What do I need a music performance degree for? And I just stopped.”

She went on to do just that, and in the course of her career she has received three Grammys, a Primetime Emmy, and awards from Billboard, Soul Train, and BET.  

Lizzo’s visit to the Library of Congress became big news: 

A flute @lizzo played in the Main Reading Room Monday (with permission from some lucky researchers who were there!) looks similar to the crystal one she had at her concert, but is actually plexiglass. It is also very rare & was manufactured when the material was first invented.🔊 pic.twitter.com/3i33D9NdQV

— Library of Congress (@librarycongress) September 28, 2022

From the Washington Post report:

Lizzo was even able to borrow Madison’s flute for her performance in D.C.:

Lizzo reverently took Madison’s crystal flute in hand and blew a few notes. This isn’t easy, as the instrument is more than 200 years old. She blew a few more when she was in the Great Hall and Main Reading Room. Then, reaching for a more practical flute from the collection, she serenaded employees and a few researchers. It filled the space with music as sublime as the art and architecture.

Cameras snapped and video rolled. For your friendly national library, this was a perfect moment to show a new generation how we preserve the country’s rich cultural heritage. The Library’s vision is that all Americans are connected to our holdings. We want people to see them.

So when Lizzo asked if she could play the flute at her Tuesday concert in front of thousands of fans, the Library’s collection, preservation and security teams were up to the challenge. When an item this valuable leaves any museum or library, for loan or display in an exhibition, preservation and security are the priorities. At the Library, curators ensure that the item can be transported in a customized protective container and a Library curator and security officer are always guarding the item until it is secured once more.

So why is there an issue? Apparently right-wing racist pundits and commentators found it to be totally offensive that a big Black woman, in seductive attire, who *gasp* is a rapper, would be on stage with a holy object (that Madison flute) and wiggle her hips—i.e “twerk.”

Here’s Lizzo’s tweet about her performance with the crystal flute:

YALL… I PLAYED THE 200-YEAR-OLD CRYSTAL FLUTE FROM THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS ON STAGE IN D.C. 😭😭😭😭 @LibnOfCongress thank you ❤️ pic.twitter.com/u07gCaRTH4

— FOLLOW @YITTY (@lizzo) September 28, 2022

I’m not going to post direct links to the remarks from racists. They are easy enough to find if you want to waste your time.

RELATED: World’s most famous flute player plays a flute. Conservatives explode in racist outrage

Here’s one of many tweets with a rebuttal :

I’m a white guy with an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War and I have no clue why Lizzo playing the crystal flute was “humiliating white people” or “desecrating American history and heritage.” It was an effective way to introduce part of LoC’s collection to the public. pic.twitter.com/CJIXJY7enp

— Max Kennerly (@MaxKennerly) September 29, 2022

Here’s some more anti-racist pushback:

Fabulous superstar singer Lizzo is living rent-free in the empty minds of racists today for masterfully playing a 200 year old crystal flute they never even knew existed until she played it. Must be exhausting to live with such hate day in and day out.

— Ricky Davila (@TheRickyDavila) September 29, 2022

Ben Shapiro is apparently upset that Lizzo played James Madison’s flute while scantily clad. Meanwhile, Madison owned people while dressed in layers of uncomfortable clothes. The takeaway? What you wear says nothing about your morality or decency. Write that shit down Ben. Please

— Tim Wise (@timjacobwise) September 29, 2022

LBGTQ Nation compiled quite a few of the virulently racist comments (if you are interested).

I especially appreciated seeing this comment from Texas AP History teacher Emily Glankler, who has an illuminating Anti-Social Studies blog, along with a YouTube channel, and posted her take on TikTok. She explains that President James Madison, whose flute Lizzo played, was a slaveholder, architect of the notorious Three-fifths Compromise that allowed slaveholding states to count Black people as three-fifths of a human, and that Lizzo playing the crystal flute in the Capitol of the nation which was built on slave labor—is simply amazing! Give her a listen.

A history teacher @antisocstudies explains the historical significance of @lizzo playing James Madison’s 200-year-old crystal flute pic.twitter.com/FN1EuAdyGI

— Fifty Shades of Whey (@davenewworld_2) September 29, 2022

In honor of Lizzo’s use of the flute, let’s visit her Grammy awards performance in 2020. (At 4:21 she plays the flute.)

And this comedic take on the Jazz flute scene in Anchorman:

Rolling Stone’s Jon Blisten reported on her amazing video after she accepted Will Ferrell’s #FluteAndShoot challenge:

The clip stars Lizzo, Este Haim and Rightor Doyle, and is practically a shot-for-shot remake of the original Anchorman scene with Lizzo modestly accepting an invitation to perform – “Honestly, I’m not even prepared!” – while simultaneously pulling a flute from the sleeve of her dress. As Lizzo rips through the smooth jazz remake of “Juice,” she tramples on top of tables, randomly pops up in the bathroom and turns the instrument into a boozy flamethrower all before closing the performance with a mighty flute drop.

I watched all the Sturm und Drang unfold over Lizzo having “tarnished by twerking” around a white presidential Founding Father’s historical relic. I’m sure all the backlash had nothing to do with her being a female flutist, or even a Black female flutist, and everything to do with the Founding Father mythology this country embraces, ignoring their legacy as slaveholders. It got me to dive into my music collection and I decided to revisit some notable Black women who were and are known as mistresses of the flute. 

In the jazz world, as in many other music realms, most notable flutists have been male: Hubert Laws, Yusef Lateef, Herbie Mann, Eric Dolphy, and Dave Valentin come to mind immediately. However, wading through my collection, I instantly pulled up some Bobbi Humphrey, who in many ways reminds me of Lizzo simply because she was a crossover artist for decades, playing a mix of jazz, pop, and R&B.  

Here she is on her first Blue Note album,  with trumpeter Lee Morgan:

All About Jazz covers her career and biography:

She has been named “First Lady of the Flute” by the critics and listeners alike and, from the accomplishments in her musical career, deservedly so. For three decades now, Bobbi Humphrey has been playing her special brand of music to audiences around the world. Her professional career began in 1971 when she was the first female signed to Blue Note Records.

Certainly a lady playing a flute must have seemed something of a novelty then. Humphrey proved, however, she was not just a “first” or novelty, but a talent to be reckoned with. For in 1973, her LP, Blues and Blues was not only a huge commercial success, but established a strong crossover market for her. Also, in 1973, she was invited to the prestigious Montreux International Music Festival in Switzerland where Leonard Feather, noted critic of the Los Angeles Times, acclaimed her “the surprise hit of the festival”. Since then Humphrey has continuously proved her sustaining power, for today she is the only successful female urban-pop flutist on the scene. Further proof is the fact that she was acclaimed “Best Female Instrumentalist” (1976 and 1978 to both Billboard and Record World, and “Best Female Vocalist” in Cashbox. This is certainly a milestone for any instrumentalist.

Born in Marlin, Texas and raised in Dallas, Humphrey’s training on flute began in high school and continued through her years at Texas Southern University and Southern Methodist University. It was there that Dizzy Gillespie spotted her when he served as a judge in a school-wide competition . With Gillespie encouraging her to pursue a career in New York City, Humphrey wrote a letter to New York’s famed Apollo Theatre and received a telegram soon afterwards telling her, “We have reserved a spot for you on Amateur Night”. She didn’t take further convincing , nor did she have trouble finding her “spot” in the music industry.

One of her big hits in the crossover mode is heard here, with visuals from Wattstax, a hugely successful festival in 1972 which celebrated African American music, art, and culture:

In 1976 Stevie Wonder invited her to play on what would become one of his iconic albums, Songs In the Key of Life. Here she is taking the flute solo on “Another Star,” which is over eight minutes long.  Humphrey’s solo starts at 6:05.

I haven’t been able to find anything about what’s she’s up to today—her website is no longer available, and at 72, she may be retired. Wherever she is, I thank her for the music.

I went to Howard University with another notable flutist, Sherry Winston. AllMusic has this short bio by MacKenzie Wilson:

At age 11, Winston first picked up the flute and by the time she was a student at Howard University, she was already shaping a name for herself. She began touring with a jazz ensemble, which included R&B chanteuse Roberta Flack, later landing herself a job as the National Director of Jazz Promotions at Columbia Records. There, Winston shaped the careers of Miles Davis, George Michael, Hubert Laws, and the Marsalis Brothers. Her defining role in the music industry, however, was not to be on the business side: Winston yearned to have a recording career as a flutist. She issued Do It for Love just prior to her major-label Grammy-nominated debut Love Is… in 1980. Love Madness followed in 1986, but Winston took a long break before releasing her fourth album Life Is Love and Love Is You in mid-2000.

Here are two of my favorite Winston tunes. The first is her lyrical cover version of Stevie Wonder’s “All is Fair in Love”:

The second is a lively lilting tune with an Afro-Caribbean beat.

My final selection for today, though I’ll have more in the comments below, is from Nicole Mitchell. Her website gives you an overview of her work:

Nicole M. Mitchell is an award-winning creative flutist, composer, bandleader and educator. She is perhaps best known for her work as a flutist, having developed a unique improvisational language and having been repeatedly awarded “Top Flutist of the Year” by Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll and the Jazz Journalists Association (2010-2017). Mitchell initially emerged from Chicago’s innovative music scene in the late 90s, and her music celebrates contemporary African American culture. She is the founder of Black Earth Ensemble, Black Earth Strings, Sonic Projections and Ice Crystal, and she composes for contemporary ensembles of varied instrumentation and size, while incorporating improvisation and a wide aesthetic expression. The former first woman president of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Mitchell celebrates endless possibility by “creating visionary worlds through music that bridge the familiar with the unknown.” Some of her newest work with Black Earth Ensemble explores intercultural collaborations; Bamako*Chicago, featuring Malian kora master, Ballake Sissoko, made its American debut at Chicago’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival in September 2017.

Encyclopedia.com provides some insight into her background:

A native of Syracuse, New York, Mitchell was born around 1967. Her father, an engineer, moved the family to Anaheim, California, when she was eight years old, and she spent most of her youth in Southern California—and found that racist attitudes gave her more problems there than in Syracuse. For example, her neighbors told her not to stand in front of their house because her presence would drive down property values. With a natural aptitude for music, math, and physics, she started playing the piano and the viola in fourth grade. She switched to the flute at age fifteen, she told J. F. Tapiz of TomaJazz.com, because “the sound drew me in and I identified with it spiritually.” She tried out for her high school jazz band but was turned down because the director did not want to make the special effort necessary to allow a flute to be heard over trumpets and trombones.

Enrolling at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), Mitchell studied math while she thought about trying to become a classical flutist and listened to musicians such as Irish classical superstar James Galway. Her first extended exposure to playing jazz came as a sophomore at UCSD, when she took an improvisation class from jazz trombonist Jimmy Cheatham. Cheatham introduced her to the flute recordings of 1960s multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, and she was instantly hooked. With little outlet for her jazz energies at UCSD once she was finished with Cheatham’s course, she began performing on the streets of San Diego for spare change. Far from being immersed in her own world, she would tailor her improvisations according to her impressions of individual passers-by.

She would ultimately wind up in Chicago, where she was street busking:

For a talented jazz player, street busking in downtown Chicago (her usual spot was the corner of Jackson and Wabash streets) was a better bet than San Diego: Chicago was home to a large community of progressive jazz players, many of whom were associated with a collective called the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The collective dated back to the mid-1960s but was (and remains) a potent force in Chicago jazz, nurturing large, freeform ensembles that would influence Mitchell’s own music profoundly. Other musicians she met on the street steered her toward the AACM, and soon she was playing in an all-female AACM group called Samana that experimented with vocals, hand percussion, and other instruments such as a sitar.

Here she is in 2019 performing live in concert in Atlanta, where she tells a story with her flute.

The Atlantic Center for the Arts in collaboration with Civic Minded Five and Timucua Arts Foundation presented Nicole Mitchell, live at Timucua in July 2019.With her were Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole, and for the finale, the associates from ACA Residency # 174 joined in for a newly minted piece: Border Parade.

Check out the lively “conversation” between flute and kora in this Black Earth Ensemble performance.

I hope today’s story has introduced you to some flutists you didn’t know, or brought back memories of those you already did.

As for Lizzo, I am happy to report that her playing a dead white president’s flute has raised a lot of consciousness about the Library of Congress’ collections, which will hopefully send some of her millions of fans exploring.

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