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Past Events

Harlem Speaks
Paul Robeson, Jr.
February 23, 2006

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On the evening of February 23, 2006 Paul Robeson Jr. informed the attendees of the packed office of the Jazz Museum in Harlem about his early years growing up in England, Austria and Russia, learning Russian and German in addition to the native English of his parents, Eslanda (“Essie”) and Paul Robeson, Sr., the legendary performer and human rights activist.

He recounted the earliest memories of his father holding him high with a huge smile, being on a movie set with his dad at the age of seven, witnessing a deep discussion in 1938 between his father and Nehru (in which Nehru posed a hypothetical: “What would I do if I were the leader of India?"), as well as the heroic status of Robeson Sr. among miner’s in Wales, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, black folks, and lovers of freedom the world over.

Robeson Jr. also revealed that his mother was extraordinarily talented (chemist, cultural anthropologist) from a prominent family line who devoted herself to her larger-than-life husband. They were friends with many artists, especially jazz greats such as Thelonious Monk, with whom his father discussed music theory.

He also explained the physical and emotional basis for his father’s powerful vocal gifts, which gave Sr. the sound, control and resonance that will be remembered for centuries to come as well as the study and effort he exerted to bring authenticity to his renderings of the spirituals and folk music of a variety of cultures.

His own musical training on piano (before turning to sports as a young man), his culture shock of coming to Harlem with a British accent and knickers (“It only took two days for me to get acculturated!”), his travels to South Africa with his mother in the mid-‘30s, his memories of his dad’s special appreciation for Duke Ellington, his father taking him to jazz clubs during the bebop era, and using his booming bass voice to quiet a crowd at Café Society when Sarah Vaughn rose up from the audience to sing, were all recounted as if they had happened yesterday.


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