A Waco native who ought to be remembered

If you’re looking for cattle, we’ve got them. And cowboys on horseback, too, all larger than life and in bronze. Even though the “Branding the Brazos” sculpture installation in Indian Springs Park is not quite complete, it’s well on its way to being one of the most evocative and popular pieces of public art in Texas. The work of sculptor Robert Summers, it celebrates Waco’s history as a way point on the famous Chisholm Trail. It’s rewarding for arts backers in Waco to see how many people are coming to see it, and how they interact with it when they do.

We’re still awaiting similar artistic commemoration of individuals. Cultural Arts of Waco is hard at work raising funds for what will someday be an impressive memorial to US Navy sailor Doris Miller across the river from the cattle drive.

But another one of our fellow citizens deserves recognition. In contrast to Miller, Waco native Jules Bledsoe was famous in the world of the arts, and a sculpture of him would be a fitting and proper addition to Indian Springs Park. A major figure in American music, Bledsoe was the first black American to sing with a major opera company, the first to become a regular performer on Broadway, and he made a lasting mark on American musical theater. A handful of people in Waco know his story, but there should be more.

Jules Bledsoe was born in Waco at the end of the 1890s, although there’s some confusion about the exact date. He wanted to be a doctor and after graduating from Bishop College in Marshall, Texas enrolled at Columbia University medical school in New York City.

But he had gift for music and a lush baritone, and soon made it his career. He gave his debut recital in 1924, performing works by Bach, Handel and Brahms in the same hall in which George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” had its world premier about the same time. From there he got a part in “Deep River,” an opera set in 1835 New Orleans which closed after a short run.

He’s best known for his role in “Show Boat,” a musical based on a novel by Edna Ferber, who also wrote, among other things, “Giant.” “Show Boat” opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre just after Christmas in 1927 and played for 572 performances. In its first review of the play, the New York Times singled out Bledsoe’s performance as “remarkably effective.” It was one of the biggest hits of the decade, and Bledsoe’s performance of “Old Man River” became a Broadway favorite.

In the following years he sang with major symphony orchestras and opera companies on both sides of the Atlantic. He died in Hollywood in 1943 pursuing a movie career and is buried in Waco.

Other cities have honored similar native sons with statues. There’s one of Count Basie in his hometown of Red Bank, New Jersey. There are statues of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong in Washington, DC and New Orleans, respectively. Bledsoe doesn’t rank with them in American musical history, but he’s pretty high up there.

Yes, we have the Bledsoe-Miller YMCA, and a bust of Bledsoe in the old Hippodrome. But a sculpture in Indian Springs Park would introduce him to countless numbers of people who will come to the park to see the cattle drive piece. It would illuminate the cultural history of Waco as the cowboys show its western heritage, and honor a major artist of the 20th century. And it would be a fitting piece of public art of which the city could be proud.

From the Waco Tribune-Herald, May 29, 2014




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