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The African-American Musicians Who Made the Modern World

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Recently, “The Undefeated,” ESPN’s online platform devoted to the African-American experience, posted this terrific piece on 44 black Americans who shook up the world. It’s a dazzling list of writers and athletes, politicians and performers, activists and scientists. While lists like these always produce quibbles, I was shocked by one omission in particular. Louis Armstrong belongs on any list of the 44 most influential people in the history of the modern world, regardless of race or nationality.

In the 20th century, the world’s cultural big bang came when the music of the African-American South shot across the Western Hemisphere, from Liverpool to Los Angeles. The music we love today descends from the jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll that sprang from Memphis, Muscle Shoals, New Orleans and too many country crossroads to mention. So as Black History Month draws to a close, here’s another list sure to provoke some quibbles of its own. These are the (completely arbitrary number of) 15 African-American musicians who made the modern world.

Louis Armstrong. Modern music begins here. Though many remember him best as the lovable (but still brilliant) crooner of his later years, his virtuoso trumpet playing changed the world when it was recorded with his bands the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens in the 1920s. When the New Orleans native moved to Chicago to join King Oliver’s band in 1922, he began the great migration of swing, fire and improvisational genius that marked a cultural sea-change. Before Louis Armstrong, popular music was soothing. After, it was exciting, spontaneous and just a little dangerous.

 

Duke Ellington. Edward “Duke” Ellington was the human confluence of the old and the new, a man of impeccable taste and sophistication who understood the world of white popular music exemplified by George Gershwin, as well as the hard-swinging sounds of jazz that had made their way to his native Washington, D.C. The most accomplished composer in jazz history, Ellington thrived by writing some pieces that were deceptively simple and others that were remarkably complex. These songs came to life in the hands of his remarkable band, which he led for decades, including a star-making residency at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Duke continued to do sublime work throughout his life. One of his greatest creations, “And His Mother Called Him Bill,” a tribute to his late right-hand man Billy Strayhorn, debuted in 1967, when Ellington was 68 years old.

 

Billie Holiday. Lady Day blurred the lines between jazz and pop, and she did it with her own highly personal and inventive style, slurring and smearing words, tugging against the tempo and injecting immense humanity into her music. She didn’t just serve the song. She was the song, or at least an equal partner. In 1958, Frank Sinatra — then at the height of his powers — told Ebony magazine that “[w]ith few exceptions, every major pop song in the U.S. during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.” In fact, his devotion was so great that Sinatra (a heavy drinker, but not a drug user) tried to fulfill Holiday’s request that he smuggle heroin into the New York hospital room where she lay dying in 1959. He managed to get the drugs, but he never got them through the door.

 

Muddy Waters. Though the music’s origin story rests with the Mephistophelean deal made by Robert Johnson in Mississippi in the 1920s, no artist is more responsible for carrying the banner of the blues to prominence than the man born McKinley Morganfield. With a voice as big and forceful as the mighty river itself, Muddy brought the blues out of the country and into the world. When he moved to Chicago, the electrified versions of his songs (largely written by him or Willie Dixon), became the thrilling, greasy cousins to the more urbane R&B emanating from Atlantic Records. It also served as inspiration for a burgeoning scene across the pond. How much of an inspiration? Just consider that one of his most famous songs was called “Rollin’ Stone.”

 

Miles Davis. Other jazz musicians played better (John Coltrane), wrote as well (Thelonious Monk) or conceptualized on par (Charles Mingus) with Miles Davis, but none did it as long or in as many epoch-shifting ways. Through more than four decades of musical restlessness, Davis gave birth to the cool movement in jazz, created the masterpiece of the modal style (“Kind of Blue”), led two great hard-bop quintets, presided over orchestral records of true grandeur (“Sketches of Spain,” “Miles Ahead”), shifted jazz into something electric and hypnotic (“In a Silent Way”), shattered minds with a kind of new, powerful abstraction (“Bitches Brew”), rocked like a banshee (“A Tribute to Jack Johnson”), and simultaneously alienated and attracted audiences with a form of aggressive, violent instrumental funk (“On the Corner”). And he made more than 60 other albums along the way. The most visionary artist of his time.

 

Chuck Berry. Though some of rock and roll’s earliest stars — Bill Haley, Elvis Presley — were white, the music was invented by black men who distilled the jump blues sound of the 1940s into something harder, leaner and more direct. And though many, including Little Richard and Fats Domino, did it brilliantly, no one did it more influentially than Chuck Berry, the architect of rock and roll. The man created the template for the modern band, writing the words and music, singing the songs and playing guitar just like ringing a bell.

 

Ray Charles. No one had a more grandiose or fitting nickname than The Genius, the man who fused jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues and a touch of country and western, and turned them into soul. Simultaneously wild and cool and gritty and graceful, Charles was an explosive, highly emotive singer who brought a traditional pop arranger’s skills to a more forceful style of music. A towering songwriter and brilliant pianist to boot, no popular artist before him had done so many things so well.

 

James Brown. The man alternately known as “Mr. Dynamite,” “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” and “The Godfather of Soul” did nothing less than change the format of popular song. Before Brown, songs were some combination of verse, chorus and bridge that emphasized melody. But when he doubled down on the vamp — a simple phrase repeated over and over — he catalyzed every element of his music into pure, hard rhythm. The world called it “funk.” And from “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” to “Hot Pants” and dozens more, James and his Famous Flames (and later the JB’s) built the model that prevails to this day. As countless samples of “Funky Drummer” will testify, there would be no hip-hop without The Godfather.

 

Aretha Franklin. It was, as James Brown sang, still a man’s, man’s, man’s world when Aretha Franklin broke through in the 1960s, but she had a hand in changing all of that. A performer with what has been rightly described as The Voice of God, and a pianist of remarkable skill and power, Aretha was an artist and a woman, and each informed the other. Unlike the girl groups that immediately preceded her, Aretha was not merely a voice manipulated by a male producer. In fact, she barely needed producing at all. Find a good song, get some sympathetic musicians, and roll tape. The results were magic. Merging her gospel past with the soul of the moment, Aretha sang of a complicated, empowered womanhood. There was no “He Hit Me (and it Felt Like a Kiss)” in her repertoire. It was “Respect,” “Chain of Fools” and “Think,” songs that saw her standing up to — and staring down — her man. The nickname The Queen of Soul feels too limiting. She’s The Queen, period.

 

Jimi Hendrix. Performance. Songs are not just words and notation on a page. They require performance to make them something other than mere blueprints. There are countless talented musicians who can take the architecture and turn it into a fine house. But there are precious few who can take simple instructions and turn them into towering cathedrals of sound. Jimi Hendrix sent gleaming spires skyward when he unlocked the theretofore unknown capability of the electric guitar to unleash waves of sound that no one had previously imagined. To this day, no one has ever sounded like him, because no one can. He was singular.

 

Stevie Wonder. Before Michael Jackson, Motown had a child prodigy named Little Stevie Wonder, who hit number one on the singles chart with “Fingertips” when he was just 12 years old. He remained a reliable hit maker through his adolescence and early adulthood, but was constrained by the tight controls of Motown’s factory approach. Given artistic freedom as he entered his twenties, Stevie Wonder took flight and became a superstar. He wrote and sang some of the most enduring music of the 1970s, and enjoyed one of the most fertile runs any artist has known. He released two classic albums in 1972 alone (“Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book”), and his next three albums — “Innervisions” (1973), “Fullfillingness’ First Finale” (1974), and the double LP “Songs in the Key of Life” (1976) — all won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. We likely won’t see that again.

 

Michael Jackson. An electrifying presence from the moment he entered the global consciousness at the age of 11, Michael Jackson towered over the culture like no artist since The Beatles. The hysteria of his 1980s fame, followed by the tawdry and tragic arc of his remaining years, can obscure the sheer quality of the music, from the Jackson 5 to the Jacksons to his solo career. But has anyone ever produced a more infectious brand of pop-funk, or just plain pop? From “I Want You Back” to “Enjoy Yourself” to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” Michael Jackson was at the center of songs that commanded you to move and to sing along. The real shame is that there weren’t enough of them (just two albums in the 1980s), and also that he didn’t write more. Despite having some high-quality writers on call, almost all of his very best songs — “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “The Way You Make Me Feel”— came from his own imagination. He gave his all and left us wanting more.

 

Prince. When two titans occupy the same space and time, it is inevitable that we will pit them against each other, either directly (Ali vs. Frazier) or in debate (DiMaggio vs. Williams). And while Michael Jackson was, by unanimous accord, the biggest star of his time, is there any doubt that Prince was the greatest musical force of that same era? Inspired by the burbling funk of Sly and the Family Stone, the boho spirit of Joni Mitchell, the pyrotechnic technique of Jimi Hendrix and the relentless musicality of The Beatles, Prince was the ultimate one-man jukebox. And while Jackson’s output was sometimes scarce, Prince’s proved limitless. He averaged an album a year from his 1978 debut until his death in 2016, and his work from 1980’s “Dirty Mind” through 1987’s “Sign ‘O’ the Times” was rarely short of dazzling. And often, he did it all by himself, writing all of the songs and playing all of the parts. The most transcendent individual talent of the rock era.

 

Jay-Z. Hip-hop fame is fleeting. Trailblazing acts like Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy had relatively short peaks, and megastars like The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur had tragically short lives. The wildly inventive OutKast may have been just one more great album from claiming the title of G.O.A.T., but they seemed to grow bored of their own brilliance and then walked away. Jay Z, though, has endured. With the bounciest beats and the freshest flow, the man who was born Shawn Carter has presided over the rap game for more than two decades now, and has leveraged his success into a full-blown business empire with a variety of holdings in the world of sports and entertainment. From “Hard Knock Life” to “99 Problems” to “Empire State of Mind,” Jay is responsible for some of the most iconic songs of his time, not to mention 13 number-one albums. Also, this past week, he became the first rapper to earn induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And he still might not be the most prominent artist who eats breakfast in his kitchen every morning.

 

Beyoncé. “Who gives a %$& about a #@$$@&! Grammy?” is a question once forcefully posed by Public Enemy. It turns out that the answer is “almost everyone” ever since our most popular current artist (Adele) recently stood on stage and proclaimed herself unworthy of the Album of the Year statue that had just been handed to her. Instead, she said, the award should have gone to Beyoncé, wife of Jay Z and the reigning Queen of Pop, whose album “Lemonade” she declared “monumental.” Which, of course, it is. Our most daring and relentlessly inventive current star, Beyoncé is dominating the conversation by making music that is simultaneously accessible and adventurous, all delivered with a mix of poise and ferocity that has little precedent. In a time of fragmented media and declining record sales, Beyoncé stands as the rare galvanizing force. She’s the most relevant figure in music at the moment.

Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the new novel “Mellow Submarine,” which is available from Amazon. He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.

Feature photo of James Brown by Getty Images