To mark LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari asked its contributors to recall a song that had an impact on their own stories.
‘Mack The Knife’ – Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington
by Wendyl Harris
When I was little, weekends were always defined by waking up to the sound of my dad’s Jazz records and the smell of a fry up. He liked to turn the volume way up, honky tonk, trumpets and trombones stonking. Word was that he was a bit of a bad boy spiv in his day. I liked Satchmo best back then, with his sort of dirty, gritty laughter as he jammed, but my very favourite was Ella doing all her mad, joyous scatting doobee do’s with old Mackie from her gig on the Côte d’Azur.
I was six years old when they shot Martin Luther King … and sometime after that my dad started my real education. He had been at the battle for Cable Street in 1936. We were comfortably off, nerdy, liberal, not-really-religious English Jews living abroad but we knew what it was like to be discriminated against.
I didn’t just learn about the Civil Rights movement in the US, but of the context of R ‘n’ B and Jazz and some of its hidden language too. That’s when I first learnt about ‘gay’ too. My father found it easy to talk to me about singers and musicians who cross-dressed or were other-gendered, who loved another man or woman and how this too was celebrated in music.
Perhaps it was easier since homosexuality was a hot topic, only recently decriminalised in the UK. Or perhaps it was persistent tomboyishness that meant my father didn’t see a difference – for him, one form of repression of a fellow human being was as bad as another and could never be justified.
The following year my dad took me to see Ella Fitzgerald at the Montreux Jazz Festival. It seemed as though she sang not just with her voice but her very being, and I wept with joy as the music danced in my heart.
The next day we heard that Judy Garland had died and a few days later came the events at the Stonewall Inn in New York that would become the timeline for our modern Queer history.
Forty-five years later I realise how lucky I am to have been taught the lessons of equality and love before the world of hate and bigotry could get to me. I believe those positive messages protected me from the feelings of shame and internal distress that many LGBTQI people still struggle with today because of the many sometimes ignorant, sometimes hateful depictions that still persist.
I love LGBT History Month because it reminds me that we are everywhere and touch everything, that our lives have meaning in every way. It reminds me that we’re committed to changing the cycle of ignorance and hate that hurts so many, and it reminds me our own lives are worth celebrating too.