March is “Women in Jazz Month.” It’s also “Women’s History Month.” As the National Museum of American History notes, Ella Fitzgerald was about intersectionality before the term was coined:
Fitzgerald succeeded in the male-dominated field of jazz. By overcoming the odds, breaking barriers, and setting precedents, she paved the way for other women to follow her inspiring example.
The centennial anniversary of the birth of the “First Lady of Song” is being celebrated from the Apollo Theater to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
On March 23, the Apollo Theater, where Ella made her debut on an Amateur Night in 1934, is hosting “Ella! A Centennial Celebration.” The community event features a panel discussion and musical reflection by the author and star of “Me & Ella,” Andrea Frierson, and her trio.
From March 24-25, the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University will present CELLABRATION, a two-day symposium to celebrate the most influential vocalist in jazz history.
A phenomenal woman, Ella Fitzgerald will be celebrated for generations to come.
Located in Center City, Morton Casway’s Celebrity Room was popular in the 1940s. It played host to a number of jazz and blues greats, including Fats Waller, Mary Lou Williams and Art Tatum.
In the September 11, 1948 issue of Billboard magazine, it was reported that Casway and other Philadelphia club operators were “singing the blues.”
The nightspot’s booker, Nat Segall, “is the only prospect shopping around the center of town for a new spot. Segall, the former owner of the Downbeat, found his sweet spot. He moved on and became the booking agent for the legendary Showboat.
Incorporated in 1937, saxophonist Jimmy Woods was a regular at this Ridge Avenue nightspot.
At some point Butler’s Paradise Café closed. After refurbishing, in December 1952 it reopened as Butler’s Café. Billboard reported that the headliner was “Bill Doggett and his organ and trio.” Doggett co-wrote the smash R&B hit, “Honky Tonk,” which sold four million copies.
April is Jazz Appreciation Month. The Apollo Theater is kicking off the celebration with auditions for a special Jazz Night edition of Amateur Night.
Got jazz talent? Alright then grab your instrument, accompanist, CD, flash drive, MP3 player or dancing shoes and head on up to Harlem on Saturday, April 1. The Apollo will provide 88 key keyboard, drum kit, guitar and bass amps.
For more information on how to audition and eligibility rules, go here.
Two years ago I launched All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s rich jazz legacy. In documenting the places where jazz history unfolded, I also want to contextualize the impact of jazz musicians and the jazz culture.
Fact is, the jazz culture was about “intersectionality” before the term was coined . As Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron notes in her column, “Ridge Avenue’s last standing jazz club,” gay performers such as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” were an integral part of the scene.
In a piece for PlanPhilly, I wrote about why historic preservation matters:
1409 Lombard Street helps tell the story of artistic greats like Lady Day, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and McCoy Tyner. It also tells the story of disruption and defiance. In remarks to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said jazz is “triumphant music.” If walls could talk, they would tell how the jazz culture broke down social barriers. The first racially integrated nightspot in Center City was a jazz club, the Downbeat. For the first time, blacks and whites mixed on an equal basis. Jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was “a steppingstone” to the Civil Rights Movement.
At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Who decides what gets saved and whose story gets told? The built environment reflects racial inequalities. Given African Americans’ socioeconomic status, few of the buildings associated with black history meet preservation standards regarding architectural significance. Although unadorned, they are places that tell a more complete American story. The stories of faith, resistance, and triumph are relevant to today’s social justice activists.
March is Women in Jazz Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of women to jazz.
As a lifelong activist, I want to celebrate the role that women in jazz played in paving the way for the Civil Rights Movement. While Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is well-documented, Ethel Waters’ “Supper Time” is not well-known. Written by Irving Berlin especially for Waters, the song is about a wife’s grief over the lynching of her husband.
I also want to celebrate the pioneering women of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first racially-integrated all-female big band. The 17-piece band was led by vocalist Anna Mae Winburn.
The Sweethearts were popular in the 1940s. Indeed, they were one of the top swing bands, appearing on radio broadcasts, and touring the U.S. and Europe.
The group disbanded in 1949.