As Women’s History Month and Women In Jazz Month come to a close, I would like to celebrate “Sassy” Sarah Vaughan who was born on March 27, 1924 in Newark, New Jersey.
Vaughan’s professional career began after she won first prize at the famed Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in 1943. Six months later, she joined Earl Hine’s big band. Her first hit was the jazz standard “Tenderly” which she recorded in 1947.
The legend-in-the-making was one of Philly’s favorite jazz singers. Vaughan graced many stages in Philadelphia, including the Powelton Café, Pep’s Musical Bar, the Arena, Uptown Theater, Robin Hood Dell (now Mann Center for the Performing Arts), Robin Hood Dell East (now the Dell Music Center), Zanzibar Blue and the Academy of Music.
A two-time GRAMMY Award winner, the “Divine One” is memorialized with a United States Postal Service Forever Stamp. The First-Day-of-Issue ceremony was held on March 29, 2016 at the Sarah Vaughan Concert Hall at Newark Symphony Hall.
Architectural engineer William Mann opened Mr. Mann’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge in West Philly in 1972. The Philadelphia Tribune reported: Although there are other locations in the city where it might have been easier to establish Mr. Mann’s, the corner of 48th and Market was chosen.
Mann told the Tribune:
Not because it was the best place; but because I would like to see it here. I believe that if Black people don’t put their businesses (in Black communities), no one else will.
National performers who appeared in the 200-seat lounge included Betty Carter, Norman Connors featuring Jean Carne, Bill Doggett, Billy Eckstein, Hazel Scott, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
Mr. Mann’s closed in 1976. The building was demolished in 2020.
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. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol, is the first protest song.
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.
For Lady Day and Ethel Waters, Black Lives always mattered.
As Black History Month comes to a close, a threat to teaching African American history is looming in Pennsylvania. In the last session of the Pennsylvania legislature, a conservative lawmaker introduced the Teaching Racial and Universal Equality Act which would limit how teachers discuss racism and sexism, and ban schools from hosting speakers who advocate “racist or sexist concepts.” Republican State Rep. Russ Diamond said his bill is “aimed at curtailing the divisive nature of concepts more commonly known as ‘critical race theory’.” Diamond likely cannot spell “CRT.” Critical race theory is an academic framework for examining how racism is embedded in law, public policy and institutions.
Not to be outdone, Republican State Rep. Parke Wentling, one of four state lawmakers on the 12-member Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, wants to privatize the state agency’s historical marker program which recognizes people, places and events that have statewide or national significance. In a 2021 op-ed Wentling wrote:
Rather than have the official arm of the state be the arbiter of history, perhaps it is time for the commission to get out of the marker business entirely and find a way to privatize our historical recognitions.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s blue and gold historical markers are public history lessons. For many Americans, the markers are their only exposure to African American history and culture.
In a recent op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote:
For only the second time in its history, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum announced in November that it was “temporarily pausing” the program because of “ongoing supply chain issues” affecting the production of the iconic blue-and-gold markers. I contacted the agency this week to check on the program’s status; spokesperson Howard Pollman told me, “There is no timetable as to when the temporary hiatus will be lifted.”
To me, the open-ended suspension — coupled with the vague language in the November announcement that the agency “will be reviewing the marker program in the interest of continuous improvement” — raises a red flag.
I believe Wentling’s screed is of a piece with a bill introduced in the last session by Republican State Rep. Russ Diamond, which seeks to prevent our schools from teaching “critical race theory.” Some politicians want to erase the progress made in telling a more inclusive American story by attacking a conceptual framework for the teaching of Black history. I fear these culture wars will escalate as the 2024 presidential election heats up.
Like most enslaved people, Frederick Douglass did not know his date of birth. He assumed he was born in 1818. Douglass chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14. The first Douglass Day was observed in 1897.
In December, Philadelphia250 announced the winners of its “Leave a Legacy” competition. The three finalists will each receive $250,000. The projects focus on immigrants, Special Olympics, and toys for children. Philadelphia250, without a single historian on its staff or board of directors, claims they are “setting the stage for Philly’s most high-profile event in decades.” African Americans make up 40 percent of the City’s population but they will play a bit part in official celebrations.
Philadelphia250 whitewashing the country’s origin story is of a piece with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ rejection of the College Board’s Advanced Placement course in African American studies. To honor Douglass’ legacy of resistance and agitation, I will file Right-to-Know requests to try to find out why the organization that is planning Philadelphia’s Fourth of July semiquincentennial celebration excluded Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved valet, Robert Hemings, who was with him at Declaration (Graff) House where Jefferson wrote the nation’s founding document. The nonprofit is not subject to Pennsylvania’s open records law but some of its board members are.
Still in his early teens, James Forten was a powder boy during the Revolutionary War. The Museum of the American Revolution’s new exhibition, “Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia,” chronicles the life of this revolutionary figure who was present at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776.
Like Forten, Crispus Attucks, the first person to die in the American Revolution, and Cyrus Bustill, who served in the Continental Army, are invisible to Philadelphia250.
George Washington’s enslaved valet and aide-de-camp, William Lee, who is depicted in Emanuel Leutze’s painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” is not represented.
Black Revolutionary War patriots are not honored by Philadelphia250. Instead, they awarded Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse $250,000 to teach children about “revolutionary action figures.” The action figures include wannabe political candidate Ya Fav Trashman.
You can’t make this stuff up. The struggle continues.
African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression, in all forms, especially the racial terrorism of lynching, racial pogroms, and police killings since our arrival upon these shores. These efforts have been to advocate for a dignified self-determined life in a just democratic society in the United States and beyond the United States political jurisdiction. The 1950s and 1970s in the United States were defined by actions such as sit-ins, boycotts, walk outs, strikes by Black people and white allies in the fight for justice against discrimination in all sectors of society from employment to education to housing. Black people have had to consistently push the United States to live up to its ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice for all. Systematic oppression has sought to negate much of the dreams of our griots, like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and our freedom fighters, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Septima Clark, and Fannie Lou Hamer fought to realize.
Billie Holiday denounced the terrorism of lynching in “Strange Fruit,” the first protest song. Bassist Charles Mingus observed that Lady Day resisted racial oppression before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
From Louis Armstrong to Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, jazz is the music of Black Resistance.
Poet Langston Hughes said jazz transformed Black Resistance into an art form:
But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.
Jazz is the sound of resilience and the struggle for freedom.
A child prodigy, Roberta Flack began studying classical piano at age nine. Flack got her big break while performing at Mr. Henry’s Upstairs, a jazz club on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
American Masters: Roberta Flack tells Flack’s story in her own words. The documentary features interviews with, among others, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Angela Davis, Valerie Simpson, Les McCann and Peabo Bryson.
American Masters: Roberta Flack premieres on Tuesday, January 24, 2023 at 9pm ET. The documentary will be available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App. Check your local listing here.