Wednesday, December 9, 2009

All that Jazz: Music and Dance Traditions on Cosby

Last week, I made a pretty huge assertion: that the Cosby show is black, enough that is, to be considered a "black show." I followed this assertion by offering what will be the dialogic lens (the black folk AND African Diasporic traditions)through which I will examine the show, and hopefully uncover its blackness. Again, the goal of this weeks blog is to excavate the buried blackness of Cosby, and to clarify that which has most often been blurred and obfuscated by its marginalized, albeit problematic, middle class black perspective. In particular, I would like to focus this week on the music, oral, and dance elements of the show. Linked to the black folk tradition, these elements become signifiers of an African-American brand of blackness (black cultural representation) which draws on a legacy of resistance and celebration.

These elements can be divided into three common themes on the Cosby which I will briefly describe and discuss. I have also provided several links and images to the these scenes for your consideration and, of course, viewing pleasure.

Music and Musical Guests: Jazz, Blues, and Cosby

In retrospect, audiences should have seen it coming. From the first few moments of the opening scene of the pilot episode, viewers watch the Cosby children bicker, eat, complain, and dance. This scene is so infused with soul, with rhythm and vibrancy which is only matched by Bill's later performance in which he pop-lock's to Jazz. From this moment on Jazz music, and blues and R&B for that matter, became staple signifiers of blackness on the show.

Cosby Show Pilot Episode

As seen in the episode entitled, "Jitter Bug" break, and subsequent episodes, Jazz music and dance were identified as passion's of Cliff. It is important to note that Cosby in linking his character to Jazz music, he undoubtedly draws on the rich history of Jazz as both a resistance movement and form of resistance to racism, linked to the hypersexualition of the black body. In drawing on this history, Cosby's character in essence signifies all that America once feared in its cultural past. On a more light-hearted note, the vibrancy and energy of these scene's are also inspiring. Cosby in having famous guest stars, brings them from the margins to the center of American cultural awareness. Legends like Lena Horne, Betty Carter, Nancy Wilson, Mavis Stables, Dizzie Gillespie, Stevie Wonder, Tito Puente, and Sammy Davis Jr. have all made appearances on the show, acting as signifiers for the genres of music they each perform. Below I have provided links to these guest appearances by artist:

Lena Horne

Nancy Wilson

Mavis Staples

BB King

Celebrating the Black Body in Motion: Dance, Resistance and Liberation

Dance also became a major cultural signifier for the Cosby shows blackness. Although it wasn't until the second season did the first of many opening credit sequences appear; however, dance was introduced early on in the shows life span. As noted above, the pilot episode did depict both Cosby and his children dancing--moving freely. This freedom becomes significance when one considers the long standing relationship that white society has had with the black body. Viewed as licentious, hypersexual, and all around threatening, black males and female bodies became the target of racialized fear and curiosity. This fear was most apparent during the Jazz age, in which white youth flocked to black neighborhoods to listen to this new and emerging sound called Jazz. Highly improvisational and rhythmic, Jazz was seen as a nuance and threat to white morals, as many believed it encouraged--caused even, sexually deviant and immoral behavior. In addition, Jazz has also been viewed as having cultural origins in Africa and other black cultural hot-spots.

Some of the most memorable examples of dance on the Cosby show are seen during the opening credit sequences of season's 2-8. However, the episode Jitterbug Break stands out as a critical moment in that the show hosts guest stars Judith Jamison and Donal McKayle (both of who are choreographers having danced with famous dance companies such as Alvin Ailey) who teach the Huxtable children a lesson in dancing.

Jitterbug Break

Another example of dance on Cosby came years later when Cosby held a battle with famous tap dancer Howard "Sandman" Sims." What begins as a battle of modern moves, eventually leads us back in time as both character's end up soft-shoeing--which carries with it a problematic and painful past. However, Cosby nonetheless calls for the appreciation of this form of dance and cultural expression.

Mr. Sandman

It's a Family Affair: Black Music, Song, Dance, and Tradition

I would next like to discuss the function of music and dance on the Cosby show as a means by which to create and model tradition. There are lots of traditions which become part of the shows theme and narrative style. One in particular, as it relates to dance and music, is the "Happy Anniversary" dance and lip-syncing performance in which the Huxtable family performs Ray Charles' "Night Time is the Right Time." This tradition of the Anniversary performance would crop up time and time again (think Olivia's rendition of Koko Taylor's "I'm a Woman") and become one of the most recognized and celebrated aspects of the show. Modeled on the Cosby show, was the way in which music and dance, as part of the black folk tradition, were also a means by which story's were told and passed along.

"Happy Aniversary"

Another tradition with regard to song and dance which appears is the black choir tradition. Although it was not depicted regularly, the scene exposed audiences to a tradition which impacted and shaped American music and theater performance. In the scene below, Claire sings with the Hillman Choir. Also, linked below is a video of historic singer Leontyne Price.


Leontyne Price "My Man's Gone Now"

We also see music emerge as a tradition within the Huxtable family itself. The episodes "Play it Again Vanessa" and "Play it Again Russell" mirror each other in that they depict members of the Cosby family having to overcome the fear and challenge with regard to playing an instrument.

Looking Beyond...

Diasporic Representations of Dance and Music on Cosby

There have also been several diasporic representation of blackness with regard to music and dance, displayed on the Cosby show. Below is a brief account of some of the references:

  1. The opening credits of Season 2
  2. The Appearance of guest stars Graciela, Willie Colón, and Mario Bauza and His Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra
  3. The opening credits of Season 5
  4. Guest Appearance by Spanish singer Placido Domingo

These examples were critical in that they situated Latin culture firmly within the scope and range of the black cultural experience. In so doing, Cosby drew connections between the experiences of specific groups which included Cuban, Latin-American, Brazilian, Caribbean/West-Indian cultures more broadly. Thus, Cosby called attention to these other experiences of blackness which were often marginalized or subsumed by the essentialized African-American black experience.

Cross Generational Representations of Black musicality

The Cosby show also drew connections between Hip Hop culture (which oddly enough Cosby critiqued) and Jazz Culture. As observed in "Jitterbug Break," what ensues is a multi-generational and cross cultural dance experience. Discussion of Hip Hop, cultural references to Hip Hop are few but present. Break Dancing and Hip-Hop are just some of the cultural references made to urban hip-hop culture.

I realize that these examples are brief and in now way exhaustive. However, I hope that they have been helpful in instigating further consideration into how the Cosby show is black.


1 comment:

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