Every generation has a select group of slightly more progressive individuals whose artistic talents are celebrated for a time, but then are overshadowed by what is more palatable from the perspective of a quirky and fickle public.
As a pianist, bandleader and composer, Reginald Foresythe's musical inventions can best be described as an avant-garde, but orchestrated 1930's style of modern jazz. But then there are always music critics and jazz historians who will always argue over what is really jazz.
One thing they all seem to agree on is that Reginald Foresythe's orginality was once on the same level of brilliance as that of the famous Duke of Ellington. Today, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington is a musical icon for the ages, but The New Music of Reginald Foresythe is now almost exclusively known only to the serious discophile or afficionado of the obscure. In the 1930's, jazz was primarily considered dance music and Ellington complied admirably, but Foresythe's unusual, musical idiosyncrasies made it a lot more difficult to cut the rug. Maybe that's why he called his music THE NEW MUSIC!
Discreet about his sexual orientation, Reginald Foresythe's racial heritage was more open to speculation. For the record, his father was an African (Yoruban) lawyer from the Sierra Leonean community in Lagos, Nigeria, and his mother was English of German and Scottish descent. Growing up middle-class in West London, young Foresythe was quite the anomaly; a precocious young black boy who spoke several languages and something of a musical prodigy to boot. But it appears that Foresythe never seemed to have a problem with where he fit in. And that place was overwhelmingly within the African American jazz community both at home and in the states during the aftermath of the Jazz Age.
His first important professional gig was in 1929 as accompanist to Miss Zaidee Jackson, one of the many Black American divas of the day that captivated London and Paris. The results were less successful in Australia with tenor, Walter Richardson, and the two eventually ended up in Hollywood of all places.
Foresythe thrived in the black jazz circles, and met and forged friendships with the likes of Duke Ellington among others. He was also able to gain entry into the local film colony writing the score for D.W. Griffith's sweeping film, Abraham Lincoln. With Richardson as tour guide, Foresythe went to Chicago and met the great jazz piano virtuoso himself, Earl Hines, and together they worked up what would become Hine's signature tune, Deep Forest.
In Harlem, Foresythe truly found his element by collaborating with the likes of Andy Razaf and Louis Armstrong. Armstrong recorded his tune, Mississippi Basin, and probably during some foray or musical exchange downtown, he crossed paths with bandleader Paul Whiteman securing what would become another important relationship that would greatly impact his future career. Returning home to London, Foresythe was charged by the almagram of exchanges & influences that he absorbed in America. With fresh, new ideas and classical European training, he launched himself as a bandleader and created The New Music in 1933.
Saxophones, clarinets, flutes, oboes and bassoons replaced the more familiar brass-reed combination of the big bands, and Foresythe ushered a new kind of sound for the time that can best be compared with what Ellington was then calling his "tone poems." They were jazzy but atmospheric compositions that British dance patrons failed to adjust to. London was not amused but Black America ate it up! With peculiar titles like Berceuse For An Unwanted Child, The Autocrat Before Breakfast, and the stunning Garden of Weed, Foresythe secured his place in the broader artistic community.
The whimsical, Dodging a Divorcee, sounded for all the world like it should have been in a film starring Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, while Serenade For A Wealthy Widow inspired many cover versions, most notably by Fats Waller and Paul Whiteman, and sent sheet music sales through the roof.
"He was the most sweet, simple and charming person. Elegant and loved good food and always talked in a grand way, but he had a great sense of humor about himself. Reggie was ahead of his time, experimenting with popular music and jazz music" remembered Elisabeth Welch.
Welch, the great African American stage, screen and cabaret star who immortalized her name and career in London also confided to her biographer, Stephen Bourne, that Foresythe was a 'confirmed bachelor' while adding "I do not recall a woman ever being associated with him. I know he had liasons with men, but they were always very discreet."
Reggie loved good liquor, too! In 1937, Foresythe was back in Harlem with a lust for life and other things, too. Frequently seen inebriated in certain neighborhood clubs, Foresythe unfortunately experienced a bashing on the streets of Harlem that sent him to recuperate in Duke Ellington's apartment.
With Duke (right) and the legendary Ethel Waters, Foresythe was working at the Cotton Club in a show that was to be particularly gratifying for all the participants as it was the first show for which all the major numbers were written by African Americans (Ellington, Foresythe, Andy Razaf and John Redmond). It is also said that this show was the first at the Cotton Club to star so many top black performers in one production.
In addition to Waters and Ellington, there were club staples like George Dewey Washington, dancers Anise and Aland, Renee and Estela, and The Nicholas Brothers, who were making their very first appearance at the club. Bessie Dudley, Bill Bailey, and Duke's vocalist Ivie Anderson, also helped round out the cast in a high-octane production that would go down in history as one of the Cotton Club's greatest.
Reginald Foresythe didn't know that this was as good as it was going to get! Maybe if he had stayed in America things would have turned out differently. He was still as suave and debonaire as ever but his creative juices were definitely drying up. He worked consistently but he was beginning to distance himself from popular jazz oriented music just as the British musicians were really beginning to catch on.
Too old for active duty, Foresythe found himself an Intelligence Officer serving in North Africa in WWII. After the war, he toured Europe as a solo concert artist, but his style was rapidly becoming passe. He was drinking too much and playing before audiences who knew little or nothing about his prewar accomplishments, and in clubs that he never would have considered during his heyday.
After a fall down the stairs of his home in London, Reginald Foresythe died of heart failure in 1958. A new CD of his original recordings, and cover versions by the likes of Fats Waller and Paul Whiteman was released in 2008, sparking a renewed interest in the "new" music recorded more than 70 years ago by a black, gay man who had been dead for almost 50 years.