Chillin’ With Lenny, Yo

December 31, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tonight the Cathedral of St. John the Divine will offer its annual New Year’s Eve Peace Concert.  The announcement notes that “The late Maestro [Leonard] Bernstein inaugurated the annual New Year's Eve Concert for Peace more than a quarter century ago.”  More precisely, it was in 1983.  I was there. [Not quite.  It was the Dec. 31 1986 concert that I attended.  See the update below.]

Bernstein’s performance that evening combined two elements that had earned him some disdain: liberal politics and popular music.   Conservative commentators and serious music critics had scoffed at his enthusiasm for leftist causes and youth culture.  “Radical chic,”Tom Wolfe called it, implying that what motivated Bernstein was not the desire for justice or equality but the personal desire for the approval of the hip and the young.  To those critics, Bernstein’s political activity was all about style, not substance. So were the rock-music examples in his lectures. 

Bernstein was undeterred. Hence, the Peace Concert (among many other efforts).  He also remained open to the music of the young, the gifted, and the Black; he refused to dismiss it out of hand as inferior or as unworthy of the attention of serious people. 

Here is my memory of what Bernstein said that evening, New Year’s Eve, 1983.

Bernstein said that he one day when was working in the studio in his apartment, he went to get something from another room.  As he was passing the kitchen, he heard the radio that his housekeeper was listening to.  It was a loud and rhythmic but without much actual singing. 

“What is that?” he asked.  The housekeeper offered to turn the radio off.   “No, no,” Bernstein said, “don’t turn it off.  But what’s that you’re listening to?” 

“Oh, Mr. Bernstein,” she said, “that’s hip-hop.”

It was 1983, and Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC had crossed over into the general culture.  Still, I suspect that for most of the audience in St. John the Divine that evening – over thirty and overwhelmingly white – hip-hop was not exactly familiar territory.

But Lenny had listened and learned, and he delivered a speech in rap – a Jeremiad against Reagan, the arms race, the Pentagon budget, SDI (Star Wars), etc.  I think Lenny may have even had a recurring tag line or refrain, something with the word “hip-hop” in it.   Unfortunately, though I have searched the Internet, I have been unable to find a transcription or even any reference to Lenny rapping that night.  Still, I’m sure I did not imagine it. *

Peace Out.

UPDATE: Jenn Lena called out the troops to help where memory failed.  Jonathan Neufeld found the references.  Bernstein’s hip-hop speech did happen on New Year’s Eve, but the year was 1986, not 1983. 
* It’s the timing of this incident that I’m unsure of.  I’m sure I heard Bernstein tell this anecdote in St. John the Divine and continue with his sermon in rap.  I remember it as a chilly winter evening.  But was it New Year’s Eve?  The few references to Bernstein’s speech that night say nothing about hip-hop.  The closest thing I can find is the title of a lecture, “How Leonard Bernstein Invented Hip-Hop” given by Joseph Schloss at Middle Tennessee State University.  But I cannot find an e-mail, phone number, or Facebook page for Schloss, and besides, his take on the Bernstein/hip-hop connection is different.  In my anecdote, Bernstein does not invent hip-hop but rather discovers it years after its creation.

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