Sunday, May 16, 2010

Oh, Lena!

The recent death of Lena Horne hits me hard. My uncle was an acoustic bass man and played behind “Miss Horne” several times. It was still the time when black musicians who got gigs in white clubs had to enter through the back door. People loved the performances but the musicians were still discriminated against by club owners and managers. I’m watching a re-cap of her interview with Ed Bradley on CBS “Sunday Morning” and feeling so sad about her life. Being put in movies where they wanted her to appear more colored; keeping her marriage to a white Jew secret for three years, although the marriage lasted 24 years; finally being able to sing the songs she was famous for only after she became old enough to perform independent, cabaret-style performances of her choosing.

My mother and father used to attend the after-hours musical extravagances of black musicians; those times after they had finished at the white clubs and just got together to play the music they like to play. My Uncle Peter would tell them where the action was. I was still a child and they would take me with them. As each singer would get up, I would be transferred from lap to lap. I remember Carmen McCrae and Pearl Bailey. And I remember how bony the lap and breasts of Lena Horne were.

But I also remember that rich, full voice. The sultry movements (okay, I didn’t know they were sultry then, but it only takes a quick look at her movies and performances to know the truth) and the passion so evident in her voice.

I’m gonna miss you, Lena. You are part of my past. A remembrance of the love of my mother, father and Uncle Peter. And the true meaning of being a black woman when that wasn’t cool.

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