89. Promised Land
Written by Mose Allison
Performed by The George Wallington Quintet
Recorded in New York, April 4, 1957
From the CD The Prestigidator (Wounded Bird, USA 2007)



And now, here is a version of Mose Allison’s Promised Land by pianist George Wallington, recorded in New York City a few weeks after Allison recorded his original composition. Wallington clearly liked the tune. We were wondering what drew him to it. It turns out he and Allison were friends: Wallington helped Allison get work sometime in the mid 1950’s.

Allison’s original was framed by a preoccupation with time, place, and memory, while propelling itself into the future. Could we expect to find similar concerns in Wallington’s version, could we discover what the idea of Allison’s Promised Land might have meant to him, and perhaps what it meant in the times in which he lived?

About those times, we should mention that in the 1940s Wallington’s contemporaries included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan, with whom began a certain, particularly twentieth century sensibility – a sense of cold elegance and playful distance under pressure, woven almost as if by magic through a judicious mixture of clothing, comportment and composition. Wallington was held in high regard for his sartorial propriety as well as his lightness of touch on the keys. Doubly dapper, his nickname was the aristocratic sounding Lord Wallington. [1]

Wallington was present at the beginning of bebop. In 1944, aged nineteen, he was the pianist in one of the first bebop groups, Dizzy Gillespie’s band, and was recorded playing A Night In Tunisia with Gillespie at the newly opened Onyx Club on New York’s 52nd Street, [2] a place, time, and event that marks the creation of American popular music’s first avant garde.

About Wallington’s life during and after bebop, the Encyclopaedia of Popular Music tells us that ’Wallington wrote Lemon Drop, which was a bestseller for Gene Krupa, and Godchild which was recorded by the Miles Davis Nonet. In 1953 Wallington travelled to Europe with Lionel Hampton and then led a series of groups of his own including musicians such as Jackie McLean, Phil Woods and Donald Byrd.’ [3] Wallington withdrew from the music business in 1958, but made something of a comeback in the 80s and recorded several albums prior to his death in 1993. The Encyclopaedia also tells us that George Wallington is not the real name of this early bebop pianist. He was born Giacinto Figlia, in Palermo, Sicily on October 27, 1924 and migrated to America with his family in 1925. [4]

We have no documentation of the Figlia family’s journey to America, nor do we have any accounts of the treatment they received when they arrived at Ellis Island. But we do have the account of a seventeen year old Italian immigrant, a young Anarchist, who made the journey to America seventeen years before them, in 1908: ‘After a two-day railway ride across France and more than seven days on the ocean, I arrived in the Promised Land. New York loomed on the horizon in all its grandness and illusion of happiness. I strained my eyes from the steerage deck, trying to see through this mass of masonry that was at once inviting and threatening to the huddled men and women in the third class.

In the immigration station I had my first great surprise. I saw the steerage passengers handled by the officials like so many animals. Not a word of kindness, of encouragement, to lighten the burden of fears that rests heavily upon the newly arrived on American shores. Hope, which lured these immigrants to the new land, withers under the touch of harsh officials. Little children who should be alert with expectancy, cling instead to their mothers’ skirts, weeping with fright. Such is the unfriendly spirit that exists in the immigration barracks.

How well I remember standing at the Battery, in lower New York, upon my arrival, alone, with a few poor belongings in the way of clothes, and very little money. Until yesterday I was among folks who understood me. This morning I seemed to have awakened in a land where my language meant little more to the native (so far as meaning is concerned) than the pitiful noises of a dumb animal. Where was I to go? What was I to do? Here was the Promised Land. The train rattled by and did not answer. The automobiles sped by, heedless of me.’ [5] That was the testimony given by Bartolomeo Vanzetti in a court case that had entered its fifth year by the time the Figlia family had arrived in America.

Giacinto may have heard of Vanzetti’s court case. Vanzetti and his friend Nicola Sacco had been arrested in 1920 and accused of murder – they had also achieved notoriety among the American authorities as organisers and proselytisers for the labour movement. The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti had become an international focal point for a period of political repression that was as long as the trial itself, and had made the world aware of the presence of radical migrant and working class dissent in America, if only through the publicity accorded the activities of the two men by their lawyer, Fred H Moore. [6]

It is likely that Figlia’s family, like the rest of New York’s Italian community, would have heard of or had perhaps followed the trial. But by 1944, for nineteen year old Giacinto, the trial may have been no more than something that happened before he was born, which his parents may have spoken about when he was very young – perhaps as a source of secret pride, or public shame: or maybe the fates of Sacco and Vanzetti served as a warning, a way of conveying what America would not tolerate from its working classes, and the very particular kind of conduct it demanded from its immigrant workforce. Or maybe the two anarchists were too far away from the day to day ups and downs, dreams and ambitions of the Figlia family and many families like them. Two far away figures, vanishing points of a troublesome freedom, the space between them and the young piano player expanding over time. The future, beyond bebop, lay in air conditioning, and when Figlia turned his back on music for a life in cold air, the future, having arrived without too much trouble, may have seemed as much to do with being cool as the past.

But we’re running ahead of ourselves and before we go any further we want to emphasise the following: bebop gave Figlia a sense freedom and a possibility of reinvention that we’d like to think might have struck an ironic chord with Sacco and Vanzetti’s own preoccupation with liberty. For the first nineteen years of his life Giacinto Figlia had the identity conferred on him through patrilineal tradition. Bebop made him what he could only have been by way of an immersion, however brief, in bebop’s world of trampled racial and class distinctions. As Lord George Wallington, Giacinto was, figuratively, jokingly and seriously speaking, royalty from a place which still barely existed and where royalty was a ruse.

The new name, the act of renaming and the acceptance of such, was a sign of a shared acknowledgement (light hearted, off the cuff, from the heart) that whoever chose to live in this strange new world Figlia was helping to shape had the command of (musical) language, time, and space, and all the claims to sophistication, complexity, ruthlessness, power, and beauty of the European aristocracy it mocked, and whose corresponding American ruling class it set itself against – publicly, with vehemence and playfulness; privately, with great personal difficulty and professional hardship, this being 1944.

By 1944 the Figlias had been in America for almost twenty years. They were the last of a generation of Italian migrants that had been coming to America since the mid 19th century. In 1928, three years after the Figlia family’s arrival, the American government began imposing restrictions on Italian immigration, which had been increasing since the end of the First World War. This may have been in response to the rise of Fascism in Italy. It may also have been in response to events closer to home.

On April 9 1927, in a courthouse in Dedham, Massachusetts, seven years after their arrest, Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of robbery and the murder of an accountant and a guard at a South Massachusetts shoe factory, and were sent to the electric chair. [6] Their deaths sparked demonstrations in England, France, and Germany, where it was believed that the two men were innocent, and were being punished for their political activities. It would be fifty years before Sacco and Vanzetti were acquitted. [7]

By 1944 more Italians were migrating to Europe than America, but by then the wave of early 20th century Italian immigration represented by Sacco and Vanzetti had already left its impression on America’s history of working class radicalism. The wave of Italian immigration, as represented by Giacinto Figlia, also left its mark on American culture. ‘The Onyx Club represented the birth of a new era,’ remarked Gillespie in his autobiography, To Be Or Not To Bop. ‘In our long sojourn on 52nd Street we spread our message to a much wider audience.’ [8] And on the night of the premiere of A Night In Tunisia, Gillespie, bassist Oscar Pettiford, saxophonist Don Byas, drummer Max Roach, and pianist George Wallington, with their backs to the past and the future at their fingertips, introduced America to the first signs of a new cultural and political landscape that would be shaped by the struggles of the displaced and the marginalised.

In 1957, when Wallington recorded Promised Land, these struggles were being met with violent opposition. In Montgomery, Alabama six African-American churches and the home of two ministers were bombed in an attempt to terrorise the growing civil rights movement into submission. In Arkansas, mob violence threatened the desegregation of Little Rock High School, prompting President Eisenhower to send a thousand troops to Little Rock ‘to prevent anarchy.’ [9]

1957 also saw America enter the space race. On December 6th, in an attempt to display its dominance in the cold war against Soviet Russia and to present to the world a symbol of technological supremacy and national coherence, America launched its first satellite, the Vanguard TV3. [10]

By then, The Prestigidator, the album on which Wallington’s version of Allison’s Promised Land was released, had been out eight months. Wallington’s version suggests an ambivalent retrospection, an autobiographical and biographical allusion, a way of identifying with and perhaps impressing himself into the landscape of 1930s America – the segregated south of Allison and Gillespie – and a means of bringing into the present, knowingly, blindly, something of the way America was envisioned by the generations of Italian migrants that travelled to America in the first half of the 20th century – Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s visioning of America as the promised land against those closer to his own formative and adult experiences in the 1940s and 50s; an evocation of the disappearance of one world and the troubled emergence of another.

The Promised Land of Giacinto Figlia in his public persona of George Wallington also suggests an ironic if nonetheless hopeful forecast of the mood of the American landscape. The day after the launch of the Vanguard TV3, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran the headline, ‘U.S. Moon Rocket Wrecked’. Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson declared it the ‘most humiliating failure in America’s history.’ [11] There was worse to come.


[1] ‘A Sicilian named George Wallington’, by Joey Skee, August 24, 2008 http://www.i-italy.org/bloggers/3960/sicilian-named-george-wallington
[2] http://www.jazzwithbobparlocha.com/what/jazzbios/jazzbio_dizzy_gillespie.html
[3] Encyclopaedia of Popular Music, http://www.music.us/biography/artist/25877/george_wallington.html
[4] Skee
[5] ‘Facing the Chair: Story of the Americanization of Two Foreign-born Workmen’, by John Dos Passos (Boston: Sacco and Vanzetti Defence
Committee, 1927), quoted in ‘‘Save Sacco and Vanzetti’: The Defense Committee’s Plea’,http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4983/
[6] http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/sacvan.html
[7] http://ita.anarchopedia.org/Sacco_e_Vanzetti
[8] Dizzy Gillespie, quoted in http://www.jazzwithbobparlocha.com/what/jazzbios/jazzbio_dizzy_gillespie.html
[9] http://www.fsmitha.com/time1957.htm
[10] http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/50th-sputnik-timline-2007.html
[11] www.nasm.si.edu/events/spaceage/vanguard.htm



<   >