“Sad to say…” Bet you didn’t know about Harry Belafonte’s jazz career
Harry Belafonte, the acclaimed activist, actor, and artist is known musically for his signature smooth-sounding, melodic island twang. He has captivated audiences with folk songs that take them on a musical journey with the “Coconut Woman” on a “Banana Boat (Day-O)” to “Islands in the Sun.” The famous Jamaican-American entertainer was once considered the king of Calypso (a genre of Caribbean music) and musically, bigger than Elvis Presley.
Yet, very little is known about Belafonte’s stint with the genre of Jazz. Belafonte’s journey with Jazz started in the mid-1940s when, as a struggling actor in New York, he was introduced to singing as a means of survival. His work in theatre was not as fruitful as he had hoped, and he soon realized that singing could be a profitable option.
In the late 1940’s Belafonte found friendship in Jazz musicians who performed in clubs along the famous Broadway strip in New York. He would frequent the clubs after his nightly theatrical performances. These connections helped to birth his career as a vocalist. His colleagues in the jazz circuit were aware of his struggle to find financial success in theatre and suggested he tried singing. Belafonte had a unique voice, but at the time, did not consider himself a singer.
He accepted the challenge and was offered a gig to sing at the Royal Roost, a local jazz club in New York. Belafonte proved himself as the consummate performer and soon dominated his own musical stage. As his early musical career grew, he began performing in clubs across the US. His desire to continue as a performer was, however, thwarted when he was confronted with the brutal realities of racism in the industry. In the early 1950s, he stopped performing in jazz clubs and began experimenting with other genres of music.
Harry Belafonte’s famous album, “Calypso” which was released by RCA Records in 1956, is the first record by a solo artist, to sell one million copies.
Belafonte prides himself on his work as an activist for whom music has been his sword in the battle against oppression. He was a close friend to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a partner in the fight for civil rights. Belafonte refers to himself as an activist who became a singer/entertainer. He is the son of Jamaican immigrants and was raised on the island. His passion for both his island home and activism contributed to his success in entertainment.
“Sad to say…” a line from Belafonte’s hit folk song, “Jamaica Farewell,” is perhaps, the best way to describe the fact that very little is publicized about the instrumental role of jazz in the launch of Belafonte’s now lauded entertainment career. Harry Belafonte who recently turned 95 years old, is also a Grammy, Emmy, and Tony award-winning entertainer.